“The Humanities: WHY?” Panel Discussion

By Elizabeth Romero Student Intern CHASS College Computing
December 8, 2009

On November 18th,  a panel of CHASS faculty led a discussion of the grounds for research and teaching in the humanities in Humanities 1500. Dean Stephen Cullenberg moderated the discussion, entitled, “The Humanities: WHY?,” with panelists Perry Link, Jonathan Walton, Georgia Warnke, and Traise Yamamoto.

Georgia Warnke, Associate Dean for CHASS and professor of Philosophy, discussed Anthony Kronman’s recent book, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman argues that the traditional function of the humanities has been to provide for a systematic study of life’s meaning and to assist students in discovering those endeavors that will give significance to their lives. Warnke agreed with Kronman in part but argued that the function of the humanities was not individualist but collective. The questions the humanities ask are directed at our collective values and the meaning of our collective life. If engineers build bridges, humanists supply the reasons we value doing so or challenge those reasons.

Traise Yamamoto, associate professor of English, amplified this point, claiming that the humanities teach us that “fact means nothing without analysis, analysis means little without the engagement of sympathies”. Yamamoto continued her perspective, “Humanities pushes to see what is not there,” in which “desire is always about change...here I’m talking about desire and change in the largest sense” Yamamoto concludes.

Jonathan Walton, assistant professor of Religious Studies stated that “it’s within the institutions and discourses within the Humanities that a diversity of ethnic, racial, religious and sexual voices have been illumined and thus better appreciated in terms of the many ways we are human in which the differences and histories contribute…to the intellectual life both home and abroad.”

Perry Link, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching Comparative Literature & Foreign Languages, states “We need the humanities because languages are not codes and translation between them is not code-switching. This is because words are not labels that match up with things, one on one, as most people suppose them to be. Words are things in themselves, things that we pass back and forth in order to get through the living of life, much as we pass around hammers, cooking pots, coins, or cabbages. The ordinary person may not realize this about language. But philosophers know it; linguists analyze it; poets live it.”

The Humanities, from the perspective of an English major, is a world in which individuals can delve into the abyss of thought. In Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, there was no “there,” there in terms of the main character’s quest for beauty in her dismantling of a doll. The Humanities does not have that “there,” there. There are no formulas to follow to conjure up a hypothesis, nor are there any straight routes for people in the Humanities to follow. As faculty and students, Humanities allows the individual to define their own “there” and to provide open discussions about their findings to friends, to family.

The Humanities is something that can be taken home, making each individual more at home in the world.

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